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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

An Italian film open this weekend that takes its title, "Golden Door," from the Emma Lazarus' poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. "Golden Door" is about the wave of immigrants that arrived in this country at the turn of the last century. The film struck a chord with critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO: A barefoot man and his barefoot son scramble up a rocky Italian mountainside in 1904. They have stones in their mouths, and by the time they reached the big wooden cross at the top of the mountain, the stones, although smooth, are spotted with blood. They're an offering — all that this desperately poor widower, Salvatore, can show his devotion with, as he asks for a sign - whether life will be better for his family in the new world he's heard about.

The sign arrives in the form of some picture postcards. They're joke-photos, but Salvatore doesn't know that. Money growing on trees, an onion the size of a baby carriage — a preposterous vision of the new world. But for this uneducated man: persuasive. Salvatore thanks God for the sign and gathers up his family.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: None of them have ever worn shoes or have ever been further than a mile from their farm in Sicily. This first trip to a nearby port city might as well be a trip to the moon. And when they get there, and see the ocean for the first time, they don't even know what it is. A more worldly Englishwoman who speaks some Italian, helps them negotiate passage on a ship. And by the time they all get to Ellis Island, her dreams have intertwined with Salvatore's, though, with a few glitches. A marriage is necessary to get her into the country, and Salvatore is willing. But when he's handed the forms, she discovers he can neither read nor write. So she improvises.

(Soundbite of movie, "Golden Door")

Mr. VINCENZO AMATO (Actor): (As Salvatore) (Speaking Italian language)

Unidentified Woman #1: You know, this guy here didn't know how to write.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, he's going to have to come back with someone that can write for him.

Unidentified Woman #1: He comes back in a day? Okay.

Ms. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG (Actor): (As Lucy) That's me, sir. That's what I do when he needs to write.

Unidentified Man #1: Take the form and do it quickly, please.

MONDELLO: By this time in their odyssey, you know enough about Salvatore and his clan to be worried at what seems inevitable, that their hopes will be dashed. Hopes that director Emanuele Crialese visualizes with lovely, evocative camerawork, and images that hark back to the art films of the 1960s. When he pictures an ocean liner pulling away from a dock, or brings to life a story the travelers were told of rivers in America, flowing with milk, it's as if he's channeling Fellini or Antonioni.

But the director also has a sharply realistic take on issues of class and psychological suitability that will seem familiar to anyone who's been following the current immigration debate.

(Soundbite of movie, "Golden Door")

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (As Lucy) May I ask, thought you were looking for illnesses and contagious diseases here.

Unidentified Man #2: Unfortunately, ma'am, it has been scientifically proven that lack of intelligence is genetically inherited, hence, contagious in a way. We are trying to prevent below-average people from mixing with our citizens.

Ms. GAINSBOURG: (As Lucy) What a modern vision.

MONDELLO: Modern, indeed. Whatever your take on the politics of immigration, you are likely to want to protect to these particular travelers. I realized, at one point, that part of the reason I was reacting so strongly to "Golden Door" was that it's essentially the story of my own family.

My grandfather arrived just about the same year that Salvatore does in "Golden Door", penniless, uneducated, with a family, some of whom were not allowed to stay here. He set up a household in Harlem, then in the Bronx, where he was an old man by the time I knew him. He and my grandmother never talked to me of the family members who'd had to return to Sicily or of rivers of milk, or giant onions. And after living through the Depression, they definitely knew the money didn't grow on trees here.

But watching the feast of imagery in "Golden Door," I understood the boundless optimism that must have sustained them and why the American dream perhaps glimmers brightest in the eyes of those for whom America is only a dream.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Coming up: the role of American immigrants in the creation of the country's first public swimming pools.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: This is NPR News.

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